By John Freeman, former Research Assistant

The Centre for Geopolitics, Baltic programme travelled to Berlin on 14 November for a roundtable jointly organised with the Körber Stiftung History Forum. On the agenda was Germany’s place in the Baltic Sea region following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the announcement by Chancellor Olaf Scholz of a Zeitenwende, or ‘turning point’ in Germany’s attitude to security and the Russian Federation. The participants, including politicians, diplomats, historians and defence analysts from Germany, the Baltic region and the UK, tackled various questions. These topics included how the ways in which historical legacies still influence Germany’s attitude towards the Baltic. A chief concern was whether Willy Brandt’s famous Ostpolitik needs to be transformed into an Ostseepolitik, or ‘Baltic Sea Policy’. This adjusted policy orientation would require Germany to align more closely with its Baltic allies in NATO and the EU, instead of orientating its Baltic view around Russia. An Ostseepolitik would also raise the possibility of Germany regarding itself as a leading strategic actor in the Baltic Sea, building upon its commitment to lead NATO’s forward presence in Lithuania.

The first session was chaired by Gabriele Woidelko, head of the History and Politics programme at the Körber Stiftung. The topic for the first half of the afternoon focused on Germany’s self-perception and how that informs its role in the Baltic region. The key message from our participants was that the Baltic has been a ‘forgotten sea’ in Germany’s regional view. Although the Baltic has witnessed intense Germanic activity for several centuries, the Cold War Federal Republic chose to turn westward in its worldview, leaving the Baltic to be the concern of other states. The Iron Curtain was the crucial barrier which cut Bonn off from Baltic affairs, and it still appears that a barrier remains for Berlin.

In the 1970s, Ostpolitik finally turned heads eastward. At this time, it was hoped that the Baltic could become a unifying force which would nurture connections across Europe’s ideological divide. The philosophy was a kickstart for the Wandel durch Handel or ‘change through trade’ philosophy which has recently come under scrutiny in regard to Germany’s relations with both Russia and China. It was hoped, after 1991, that the Baltic could be a useful trading interface with Russia, particularly through Kaliningrad, building on the predominant Germanic view of the Baltic as a Hanseatic space for constructing commercial linkages. The maritime space, however, has not been viewed as a strategic arena and certainly not as a major naval concern for Germany.

Many of the participants argued that other countries have viewed the space completely differently. Although, the Baltic region has not always been a priority for Britain, it has at least been prepared to consider it as a space for naval activity. For Russia, the Baltic has always been a strategic frontier, and efforts to reach it were in progress from the rule of Ivan IV in the sixteenth century. As Russia only succeeded in becoming a Baltic power in the nineteenth century, Germany has a far longer connection, but due recent history, Russia sees the Baltic as part of an eastern-central European ‘near abroad’. For countries on the Baltic littoral, the threat of Russia has always rendered the Baltic a security space. Their representatives have argued that Ostpolitik should be reconstituted to take into account their security needs. Although the roundtable participants recognised that Zeitenwende has been a long process that began well before 2022, this re-assessment of Ostpolitik has been a gradual process which has not been accompanied by a substantial military or naval commitment. Neither has it come with a complete change in attitude, as has been the case recently in Finland. The hesitant approach has arguably led to Germany becoming isolated amongst its European partners.

Although an Ostseepolitik might entail Germany’s view of the Baltic becoming less orientated towards Russia, the Ostpolitik of countries such as Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, is no-less dominated by their large neighbour. Managing or confronting Moscow was a key topic of the discussion. It appears clear that Baltic countries still want Germany to be looking at Russia but through a Baltic lens.

The Centre for Geopolitics’ Professor Brendan Simms chaired the second discussion which focused on the Baltic region as a whole and the historical experiences which have shaped its geopolitics. Members of the roundtable from the Eastern Baltic emphasised that the Ukraine war is a Baltic war, which Baltic nations are fighting vicariously. This perspective has been formed through the experience of the Iron Curtain and previous Russian imperial expansion. The effects of hybrid warfare, Russian propaganda initiatives and Europe’s dependence on Russian energy, adds to this sense of conflict on a continental stage. Such a position argues that, although trade with Russia is highly beneficial, countries should not understand that there has ever been a time where Russia has been ‘normalised’ or, in other words, ‘peaceful’. A non-aggressive Russian position is understood to be the exception and thus relations with Russia can never return to ‘business as usual’. Germany’s commitment to security and reforming energy has been welcome, but otherwise there is a fear that Germany does not take Russia’s geopolitical threat to the Baltic seriously enough.

One of the reasons posited for the disparity between general German and Eastern Baltic thinking, is the matter of memory, which was a prominent theme during the discussion. The weight of the Second World War has inspired reluctance amongst the German public and policymakers to be strongly involved in military affairs. The German process of dealing with wartime atrocities and guilt has been at times imperfect but also highly effective and impressive. Dealing with the wartime past head-on has been beneficial yet arguably, it renders the notion of militarily standing against Russia, which suffered heavily in its crucial effort to help defeat Nazi Germany, highly awkward.

The situation has produced a scenario where Germany is unwilling to provide the military support which Baltic countries are demanding. In the Baltic States and Poland, where the memory of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is vivid, the Soviet Union were not liberators. Having experienced both Nazi and Soviet atrocities, they regard Russia as a continuation of an imperial, colonial power where Germany has decisively broken from this past. This has informed the recent deconstruction of Soviet war memorials as an effort to decolonise and to assert Baltic countries as independent, not ‘post-Soviet’. Whereas Germany has managed to reject its militaristic, imperial identity by holding itself accountable for atrocities, Russia has not engaged in this process of self-reflection. Part of Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s terms for peace is that the Russian army and leadership must be held accountable for war crimes committed during the war. This is seen as necessary, not only to achieve justice, but also to diminish Russian aggression. Nevertheless, Russia is attempting to portray NATO as asserting colonial control over the east of Europe. Whilst this may not hold much sway in the Baltic States and Poland, the idea does gain traction in Eastern Germany as well as Hungary and Slovakia, which in comparison to other former Warsaw Pact countries, are still more positive towards Russia. Considering Germany’s attitude stemming from the Second World War, the country is a key battleground in a memory war in a wider Baltic geopolitical conflict.

The roundtable was followed by a rich discussion during a reception hosted by the British embassy, who had been invited to observe the afternoon’s events. The Centre for Geopolitics is grateful for the cooperation of both the embassy and the Körber Stiftung in facilitating the timely debate on Ostseepolitik and we are looking forward to further events in the future. The roundtable produced not just a lively discussion, but also many additional considerations, such as the role of Britain, Germany and Poland in leading Baltic security, the importance of Kaliningrad and how Germany can adapt its view of the Baltic. These are all fertile grounds for both geopolitical and historical consideration.

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